Florence Wager bought a set of golf clubs when she wrapped up her career in arts and education.

“I had this preconceived notion about retirement,” says Wager, 81, who earned a bachelor’s degrees at WSU in speech in 1950 and education in 1954 and spent most of her career boosting the San Francisco Symphony. “I thought you played golf, played bridge, went to tea parties.”

Florence Wager at Esther Short Park
Since 1990, Florence Wager has volunteered in support of projects like the Esther Short Park. (Photo Bill Wagner)

Then, after moving back to her native Vancouver in 1990, she volunteered for the Chinook Trail Association. Then she volunteered for the YWCA. Then the parks and recreation department. Then the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. She joined boards and commissions and became an activist for her community.

“Once people find out you have a willing pair of hands, your name gets on the circuit,” she says.

Now, almost two decades later, it would be difficult to travel far in Clark County without passing a park, trail, or community building that Florence Wager hasn’t helped transform.

It also would be hard to find those golf clubs. “I never used them. They’re in the garage. That’ll be part of my next (charitable) donation.”

She adds, “Nothing else would appeal to me more than what I do now, which is work in the community. I fully intend to die with my boots on.”

I meet with Wager outside on a day quickly approaching 100 degrees. She stops and cocks her head to listen to the shrieks of laughter as dozens of nearby children splash and scramble through the manmade waterfalls at Esther Short Park.

“I just can’t tell you what a joy it is to hear those voices—laughing, jumping, playing,” says Wager, who describes herself as “a handmaiden” in a celebrated campaign to take back a park that had once been lost to drug dealers and transients. A smile warm enough to compete with the day springs to Wager’s face. “It’s just perfect,” she says.

“Just perfect” might also be how David Judd, the former director of Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation, would describe Wager herself. Wager currently co-chairs the departments commission. “Every parks director yearns to have a citizen activist to do things and say things that you cannot,” says Judd. “She’s a force of nature, let’s face it.”

Wager’s push for parks is unfailingly polite. Yet despite the kindly exterior, when she has a worthy cause, she’s unrelenting.

“You don’t ever give up. You hang on like a terrier on a pant leg,” she says. “Eventually you get there.”

Kelly Punteney, a consultant who once worked for parks department and now serves with Wager on its commission, marvels at her ability to remain positive through the toughest battles.“There’s always the naysayers,” he says. “That seems to get her fired up even more.”

“If I go into a meeting wearing red, I mean business,” says Wager, looking over her red-framed glasses. “I’m not going to come out of there until I get something. That’s my power color.”

Wager estimates she has helped with 60 to 70 new parks across Clark County. But that’s just part of her success. Friends will recall how doggedly she lobbied to win support for the Firstenberg Community Center, which opened in eastern Vancouver in 2005. Others will mention her passionate advocacy for walking and biking trails. Many may cite her hard work on the Steps to a Healthier Clark County campaign, which promoted wellness in ways like discouraging smoking at park playgrounds. The folks at the library district, YWCA, Vancouver Symphony, and Evergreen School District will remember the times she stepped up for them. And one day, perhaps a century from now, her name will come up when the historic Chinook Trail once again connects the people and lands from Vancouver to Biggs, Oregon, on both sides of the Columbia River.

Wager’s childhood memories are spiced with images of roaming across a much more rural Clark County as a schoolgirl, before she headed off to Pullman. She loved her own childhood and loves children, though she never had any. “Other people have loaned me theirs for a while,” she says.

She taught drama in Spokane for three years and English in Vancouver for one more between WSU degrees. But she yearned to be involved in the arts, so she went to California and bounced through a few jobs before landing with the San Francisco Symphony, which she promoted through fund-raisers and membership activities for nearly thirty years.

She finally felt a pull home where she could be closer to her mother and help care for an ailing sister, but she found a calling in volunteer work, which she treats like a full-time job.

This spring Judd and local attorney Scott Horenstein nominated her for Clark County’s 2009 First Citizen award, presented through a partnership of The Columbian newspaper and The Community Foundation.

“It was very hard for me to accept this award,” says Wager, who also was one of just seven people the U.S. Centers for Disease Control named “community heroes” two years earlier. “You want the work to be done but you want to stay in the wings.”

But she jokes that she will use attention that comes with being a First Citizen to pry loose donations for more civic projects. She already directed the $1,000 that The Columbian donates to the winner’s cause of choice into reviving a tradition called the Fun Wagon, which carried summertime activities into the area’s needier neighborhoods.

“Sometimes I think we talk ourselves into old age,” says Wager. “I hang out with young people, by which I mean anyone younger than 80.”

She practices the healthy lifestyle she preaches. She gardens, cans her own food, does water aerobics three times a week, rides her bicycle on the Burnt Bridge Creek Trail and walks twice daily with her Jack Russell terrier, Natuzzi.

“The thing is to stay healthy, eat properly, stay active—and do something for your community. The rewards (of volunteerism) are far greater than any amount of pay they could give you.”